Monday night's mayoral debate was messy, strange, and sometimes confusing, and this time Rob Ford wasn't even there.
The roundtable at City Hall was the first debate of Toronto's marathon election campaign since the mayor announced he was taking a leave of absence to deal with a substance abuse problem. Although he couldn't make it, in the spirit of fairness event organizers with the National Ethnic Press and Media Council invited less prominent candidates in addition to leaders Olivia Chow, John Tory, David Soknacki, and Karen Stintz. In the end, nine candidates took part.
The inclusion of so many participants may have been good for democracy, but it was terrible for expediency. Each person got five minutes to speak, and then two minutes to answer each question from the audience. Because only four of the nine candidates have an outside chance of winning the October 27 vote the majority of speaking time was taken up by fringe contenders. And there was a lot of speaking time - the debate took three hours.
But just because it was odd doesn't mean it wasn't enlightening. Here's what we learned Monday night:
John Tory isn't punctual
As a candidate with a genuine chance of winning Tory had more to gain from this debate than most, and yet he didn't show up until 40 minutes after it started. Once he arrived, he explained that he was hosting a show on Newstalk1010 and despite leaving the studio 30 minutes early he didn't make it on time. Not to be outdone however, David Soknacki bailed from the debate 50 minutes early, citing an unspecified prior appointment.
Karen Stintz isn't doing as well as she'd hoped
The former TTC chair surprised the room with her candid opening remarks, in which she said: "There's a question that's on everyone's mind and I know what the question is: why on Earth am I staying in the race when I'm at five per cent? And it's a good question."
It was not the kind of thing that a candidate who is trying to project confidence and build momentum would say, but it certainly was honest. Stintz went on to say that she won't, as some have suggested, drop out and join Tory's team because she believes she's the only one with the council experience needed for the mayor's job. "I'm at five per cent now, but trust me I will be on the ballot on October 27," she vowed.
Morgan Baskin continues to impress
She may be 18, but Baskin speaks with the self-assurance of a much older candidate, one whose spirit has yet to be crushed by the depressing realities of city politics. She delivered some of the best lines of the night, starting with a strong opening statement: "I'm not here as a joke. I'm here because youth issues need to be included," she declared.
Later, she shot down a question about why Ford remains popular: "I'm sorry, I'm not going to comment on Rob Ford, you can look up why he won," she quipped.
And her response to a question about whether she would support Toronto's LGBTQ communities was heartwarming. "I don't really have another option. I've got two trans dads so I think I might be out a couple of parents if I didn't."
The Most Interesting Man in the World™ is running for mayor
In his opening statement Erwin Sniedzins (it rhymes with "pigeons," he told us) rattled off a list of accomplishments that, if they can be believed (and some of them probably shouldn't) would make him some kind of cross between Indiana Jones and the Simpson's Professor Frink. He claims he quit his job as a senior manager at Xerox in 1989 in order to organize an expedition to climb Mt. Everest, and in the process raised $1 million for charity, made a movie of the expedition, and created a school fitness program used across the country.
When he was done with that, he told the audience he invented an "artificial intelligence engine" that he calls "the Knowledge Generator" and which he claims can help people learn 32 times faster than normal. He says he's travelled to 71 countries teaching English, and somewhere along the way wrote a book about important Torontonians. He's not going to win the mayoral election, but maybe Dos Equis is looking for new spokesperson.
Rob Ford has an imitator
Michael Nicula unintentionally got some laughs when he declared, "I am the new Rob Ford," except "fitter" and "better educated." He proceeded to lay out some comically implausible policies, like making the TTC free for the next three years and putting every major issue to a city-wide referendum.
His response to Stintz's suggestion that transit could help revitalize neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch was less amusing, however. "I don't think putting a subway stop in a ghetto will fix the poverty," he said. In fairness that does sound like something Rob Ford would say.
Ford is becoming less of a factor
Apart from Nicula's fanboying and a question about him from the audience, there wasn't a ton of talk about our troubled mayor over the course of the three-hour debate. In fact, Soknacki stated with fate-tempting confidence that "we have moved on from the nightmare of the last four years" and are finally "exorcising that ghost."
Our reprieve could come to a crashing halt as soon if Ford tires of his Muskoka retreat and walks through the doors of City Hall. In the meantime it was refreshing to see candidates discuss their vision for our city unencumbered by Ford's disruptive presence. But the absence of the man who has been Toronto's main attraction these past four years also had negative consequences. How else can you explain 60 people in the audience at the debate, including journalists, and a livestream audience of less than 500?
The leading candidates need to find another gear
Maybe it was the clumsy format of the debate or the fact that they weren't standing next to someone so obviously unqualified as Ford, but none of the major candidates came off as particularly mayoral on Monday. Soknacki spoke knowledgeably but failed to inspire, Tory's talking points were as bland as porridge, and Chow often sounded tired.
There are hundreds of thousands of voters out there fed up with the outrages of this administration and crying out for an alternative they can embrace. The election could come down to who can best harness all that pent-up anti-Ford energy and channel it in a positive direction. While there have been points in this campaign where candidates have tapped into that energy (Chow's campaign launch stands out), no one has done it consistently. They've got five more months to figure out how to do it.